by Scott Yanow
The Monterey Jazz Festival is back, mostly. During 1958-2019 the festival (always held at the Monterey Fairgrounds over a September weekend) featured a remarkable list of top jazz performers and took its place as the top jazz festival held on the West Coast of the U.S., sometimes outshining Newport. During that period, Monterey grew into a mind-boggling event that featured music at six or seven major stages; three or four outside and three indoors. Its long string of annual events was broken during 2020 due to COVID and its 2021 edition (which just had two venues) only hinted at its former greatness. The 2022 event was a giant step forward for, while the festival was held entirely outdoors and ended early each night (sometimes at 9 p.m.), the four venues (the large Jimmy Lyons Stage, the Garden Stage, the Courtyard Stage and the new West End Stage) hosted many of jazz’s most significant artists.
As always, it was a challenge to try to see everything and some groups I only saw briefly. While not all of the music fit into these categories, if one were to create a musical plot, the most dominant themes would be tributes to John Coltrane (whose 96th birthday would have taken place during the festival), a new generation of greats, and the top jazz singers.
Many of the performers tipped their hats to ‘Trane. Two sets stuck largely to his music. I always tell people that they should be at Monterey when it starts because sometimes there are happy surprises. The very first set of the weekend this year was actually one of the best. Drummer John Hanrahan and his quartet with tenor-saxophonist Andrew Dixon, pianist Ian McArdle, and bassist Guilio Cetto started Monterey off with a full-length version of “A Love Supreme.” Each of the musicians hinted strongly at members of the classic John Coltrane Quartet while still playing creatively in their own style. Dixon’s high-powered solos were a constant joy. The group also played “I Want To Talk About You” (the tenor ended the piece with a long cadenza) and McCoy Tyner’s “Atlantis.”
During the past few years, Brandee Younger has developed into the most important jazz harp (not harmonica) player. Her trio set with bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard would have been more enjoyable if the bass mike was not set way too high, often drowning out the harp. But Younger starred during another hour with Ravi Coltrane’s Cosmic Echoes, a quintet also featuring keyboardist Gadi Lehavi, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Elé Howell. If Alice Coltrane had joined John Coltrane’s group on harp instead of piano, it may very well have sounded like this. The group performed pieces by both of the Coltranes and Ravi sounded fine on tenor but Brandee Younger’s was the obvious star, gaining plenty of applause and dazzling the audience with her tasteful virtuosity. This group also played their version of “A Love Supreme” with Ravi Coltrane during the first movement repeatedly chanting “The Creator Has A Master Plan” (in tribute to the recently deceased Pharoah Sanders) in place of “A Love Supreme.”
Due to the passing of many years, these days it is virtually impossible to have a viable reunion of jazz greats from the 1950s, and even the ‘60s is becoming difficult. However the gathering of tenor-saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Brian Blade let one hear the classic group from 1994 that recorded Mood Swing and toured during that era. All four musicians have had major careers in the 28 years since. No one coasted as they performed recent originals in an inside/outside style reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s 1970s group with Dewey Redman (Joshua’s father) and Old And New Dreams.
The superb if unusual trio of pianist Gerald Clayton, altoist Immanuel Wilkins, and vibraphonist Joel Ross featured three of today’s young greats. Ross, who the night before had headed a fine post bop quintet (with Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Kanos Menderhall, and drummer Jeremy Dutton), is turning into one of the pacesetters of his instrument. Wilkins is an impressive high-powered soloist while Clayton continues to grow in individuality. The trio featured plenty of interplay and tradeoffs in a set that contrasted forward-looking hard bop with freer explorations and an affectionate rendition of the swing era standard “My Ideal.”
Artemis is an all-star all-female super group that before the pandemic hit included tenor-saxophonist Melissa Aldana and clarinetist Anat Cohen. The current version consists of veteran pianist Renee Rosnes, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, Alexis Tarantino on alto and flute, tenor-saxophonist Nicole Glover, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer Allison Miller. A very powerful unit, Artemis featured blazing trumpet solos from Jensen, fluent flute playing from Tarantino, and passionate improvisations from Glover. However Allison Miller emerged as the main star. Her solos were full of color, intensity and joy, and she really drove the band throughout the set while smiling the entire time.
Another great of today, altoist Lakecia Benjamin, consistently stole the show during the performance of the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars. The group, which teamed together Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater and also included pianist Christian Sands, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Clarence Penn, fell short of its potential because there was not much chemistry between Elling and Bridgewater; that will surely develop during their upcoming tour. The singers had fine individual features (although Elling’s performance of Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” was a bit too long) but it was Benjamin who gained a well-deserved standing ovation by taking one fiery solo after another. She is quite a powerhouse, even at this early stage in her career.
Unfortunately Dee Dee Bridgewater did not have a set of her own but Kurt Elling came back the following day with his Superblue group. The funky band, which also included guitarist Charlie Hunter, keyboardist DJ Harrison, drummer Corey Fonville, and the Huntertones Horns, was a different setting for Elling who very much rose to the occasion. He enjoyed singing fresh material rather than standards, had fun telling stories, was darkly humorous (particularly on a tale about the last day of Planet Earth), scatted creatively, and swung over the funk rhythms. One of the highpoints was his superior ballad singing on “In Love, In Life.”
Among the other singers were Veronica Swift, Gregory Porter and Samara Joy. Veronica Swift, who a few years ago sounded like a talented protégé of Anita O’Day, had stuck to rock during a nonjazz set at last June’s Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival. At Monterey she was fortunately back to singing jazz for much of the time. Her brassy version of “How Lovely To Be A Woman” recalled Liza Minnelli while she was in fine form on “A Little Taste,” the melancholy ballad “I Don’t Want To Cry Anymore,” and “You’re The Dangerous Type.” Swift was joined by several excellent horn players (trumpeter James Sarno, tenor-saxophonist Troy Roberts and baritonist Lauren Sevian) plus the talented pianist Mathis Picard. But when she began to switch to rock, it was time to depart for something else!
It is impossible not to love Gregory Porter. His deep voice continues to grow in stature and power (often holding low notes for long periods), the messages in his song are very positive, and he has a happy and very welcoming on-stage personality. Among his classics that he performed before the appreciative crowd were “On My Way To Harlem,” “Take Me To The Alley,” “I Do Not Agree,” and “There Will Be No Love Dying Here.” But Porter was actually not on the highpoint of his set. After he completed his last song, he left the stage and saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, starting with what could have been considered exit music, built up his playing to a frenzy over the closing vamp. He screamed high notes and riled up the audience like a modern day Illinois Jacquet or Big Jay McNeely. It was quite a surprise.
Samara Joy, who is still just 24, has a beautiful voice, a full understanding of jazz history, the ability to pick out the perfect note for the right moment, and an inspired repertoire of veteran standards. She outshines nearly all other singers who are in their twenties and many of the older and more famous ones too. Accompanied by guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Keith Balla, she was in wonderful form on such songs as an uptempo “This Is The Moment,” “Can’t Get Out Of This Mood” (sounding like a young Sarah Vaughan), “Guess Who I Saw Today” (somehow she makes the Nancy Wilson trademark song sound fresh), her own lyrics to Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia,” a cooking “Linger Awhile,” and a perfectly controlled “’Round Midnight.” One cannot imagine how Samara Joy is going to sound after she “matures”. She already displays a lot more self-confidence than she did when she performed in L.A. six months ago.
One could attend Monterey and have a completely different experience, seeing the groups that I missed or only had the chance to view briefly. Among those that I have not mentioned were the brilliant Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes performing his “La Creación” with the Yoruband Orchestra and John Beasley’s Monk’estra (the only big bands at this year’s festival), the funk group Incognito, pianist Kris Bowers’ commissioned piece which paid tribute to the inhabitants of the ocean (including showing film of marine life), an odd set by Nicholas Payton which featured the trumpeter mostly on keyboards with two programmers, the danceable soul jazz group Sal’s Greenhouse, guitarist Dave Stryker’s hard bop quartet with vibraphonist Warren Wolf, the Cookers (unfortunately they started late and were on at the same time as Joshua Redman’s group), the brilliant pianist and organist Matthew Whitaker, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, bassist Kyle Eastwood’s straight ahead jazz quintet, the bluesy singer Kim Nalley in a set with Houston Person and guest Maria Muldaur, drummer Akira Tana’s Otonowa quartet (which had impressive soprano sax solos from Masaru Koga), guitarist Julian Lage’s trio, the new version of the Bad Plus (with tenor-saxophonist Chris Speed and guitarist Ben Monder), the pleasing Brazilian bossa-nova singer Fleurine, the joyful swing of the Emmet Cohen Trio, the Emil Afrasivab Trio, guitarist Dan Wilson’s quartet with pianist Dan Zaleski, and trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s often-political set (which included a passionate version of “St. Louis Blues”). Not to be left out was guitarist Bruce Forman’s Reunion Trio with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton (playing good-humored bebop on the former instruments of Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne) and the unique Mo’Fone, a rhythmic trio consisting of altoist Larry De La Cruz, baritonist Jim Peterson, and drummer Jeremy Steinkoler that somehow sounded like a complete group. Even with all of those artists, this is still just a partial list!
To say that Monterey was quite a festival this year is an understatement. Why doesn’t Los Angeles have a jazz festival even close to this level?
A talented keyboardist who became an expert on synthesizers, a greatly in-demand keyboard programmer, and eventually a producer and a bandleader, Jason Miles has been making important contributions to major projects since the 1980s.
The Extraordinary Journey Of Jason Miles (available from www.amazon.com) goes into great detail about his work with Miles Davis (who became a close friend), David Sanborn, Luther Vandross, Ivan Lins and a few others. The book starts with a little bit about Miles’ childhood and his early experiences playing music, but then it unfortunately skips a decade. Suddenly the promising young keyboardist meets Marcus Miller through Michael Brecker and is on his way to important work as a programmer. One never really learns how he gained the vast knowledge and expertise with synthesizers that made him so valuable to a variety of famous musical stars.
His musical biography overcomes that omission by giving the full story behind Miles Davis’ Tutu and Amandla (and about their friendship), David Sanborn’s Close Up, the now-forgotten group The Jamaica Boys, some of Luther Vandross’ recordings, Miles’ Ivan Lins tribute project, Global Noize, and Kind Of New. Miles answers several key questions including what does a keyboard programmer actually do, why does it take so many months for the more pop-oriented projects to be completed, and what is involved in putting together music that by its final version somehow sounds spontaneous?
Jason Miles’ writing is quite conversational and informal, as if one was at his studio and he was telling stories about his experiences. While his book has a few minor typographical errors along with a four page section (pages 204-07) that somehow ends up being one very long paragraph, none of that detracts from one’s enjoyment of his musical memoirs. At 303 pages (including 18 pages of photos), Jason Miles covers in great detail some of his musical adventures while leaving out most of his activities of the past 25 years. Hopefully there will be a second book in the future; in the meantime, get this one.
Singer Lauren Newton, who was born and raised in Oregon, has been an important avant-garde jazz-based improviser in Europe since the mid-1970s and has long been based in Germany. A member of the Vienna Art Orchestra during 1977-89, a participant in 1982’s Vocal Summit recording (with Bobby McFerrin, Jeanne Lee, Urszula Dudziak and Jay Clayton), and a busy educator, she has had a productive solo career while championing the art of wordless free improvisation. Her recent book Vocal Adventures (which is available from www.wolke-verlag.de) is highly recommended to any singers wanting to explore adventurous improvising. One of the most difficult aspects of engaging in free improvising is not being afraid to make mistakes as one builds music from silence. Lauren Newton teaches that singers should embrace the unexpected, constantly react to one’s surroundings (whether it is the ideas of other musicians, the audience, or the environment), and be fearless.
Vocal Adventures is really a few books in one. Ms. Newton includes stories from her life that are consistently illuminating and colorful. There are quotes from many others including students (often from the classical world) about learning to improvise, musicians from different fields, and philosophers. And the singer includes many different types of exercises that form a master class in how to break through one’s preconceptions and self-imposed limitations in order to create spontaneous music.
The overall result is a loving and heartwarming book that in its own way gives singers the permission to be themselves. Instrumentalists can also learn from Lauren Newton’s writings, and nonmusicians will find her reminiscences about her earlier days to be quite interesting. She should write her own personal memoirs someday!